The Difference Between Appositives and Descriptions

By Mark Nichol

It is important for writers to distinguish between appositives and mere descriptions. A noun is said to be in apposition when it is set off from another noun that refers to the same idea. The phrase “set off” is significant, because a pair of commas separate the parenthetical apposition from its referent noun by a pair of commas. A description, however, needs no such bracketing.

For example, take a look at this sentence: “Here’s what the CEO of Chrysler Sergio Marchionne said to his employees in a blog post.” “The CEO of Chrysler” and “Sergio Marchionne” are one and the same — appositive — so one or the other needs to be framed by commas. This can be accomplished in one of several ways:

“Here’s what the CEO of Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne, said to his employees in a blog post.”

“Here’s what Sergio Marchionne, (the) CEO of Chrysler, said to his employees in a blog post.” (The optional the is often omitted in journalistic contexts and retained in more formal writing.)

“Here’s what Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler’s CEO, said to his employees in a blog post.” (This is a less formal variant of the previous two options.)

A description, meanwhile, such as the job title in this case, is followed directly by the name without intervening punctuation, and no comma should follow the name, either: “Here’s what Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said to his employees in a blog post.”

The first sentence in each of the following pairs appeared in a printed or online publication with commas framing the name as if it was an appositive — an error, and a distressingly common one. But notice below the differences between the statements labeled “Description” and the ones marked as “Apposition.” In a description, both the descriptive phrase and the name it applies to are essential; without either one, the sentence is incomplete. However, an apposition, being parenthetical, can be omitted without altering the integrity of the sentence.

Description: “Ex-reservist and current war gamer Mike Brown admits his battle tactics may be a bit too aggressive for a real-life situation.”

Apposition: “Mike Brown, an ex-reservist and current war gamer, admits his battle tactics may be a bit too aggressive for a real-life situation.”

Description: “Kitchen queen Nigella Lawson comes to town, shops, chops, cooks, and raves about our produce.”

Apposition: “Nigella Lawson, the kitchen queen, comes to town, shops, chops, cooks, and raves about our produce.”

Description: “Conservative radio jock Michael Savage gets his own TV show.”

Apposition: “A conservative radio jock, Michael Savage, gets his own TV show.” (The person’s name can come first, as in the previous examples, without a change in meaning, though the focus changes.)

Description: “The San Francisco–based schooner C.A. Thayer begins a $9.6 million overhaul.”

Apposition: “The C.A. Thayer, a San Francisco–based schooner, begins a $9.6 million overhaul.” (If the schooner has already been referenced generically, the sentence should read something like this: “The San Francisco–based schooner, the C.A. Thayer, begins a $9.6 million overhaul.”)

Description: “The Emeryville studio Pixar hopes to cash in on its fish flick.”

Apposition: “The Emeryville studio, Pixar, hopes to cash in on its fish flick.” (If two or more studios, each located in a different city, were previously mentioned, this sentence is correct. Otherwise, something like “Pixar, the Emeryville studio, hopes to cash in on its fish flick” would be appropriate.)

Description: “Bryan Young is editor of the blog Big Shiny Robot.”

Apposition: “Bryan Young is editor of the blog, Big Shiny Robot.” (The comma is necessary to indicate that the blog was already mentioned, but not by name. If not, the comma signals, fallaciously, that Big Shiny Robot is the only blog in existence.)

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4 Responses to “The Difference Between Appositives and Descriptions”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Here’s what Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler’s CEO, said to his employees in a blog post.” (This is a less formal variant of the previous two options.)

    This must be EXTREMELY informal. I argue that inanimate objects and abstract entities (e.g. corporations) are incapable of possessing anything, hence they do not have any possessive cases. This was what I was taught in school during the 1960s and 70s, and it always made sense to me. Hence, “Chrysler’s” is impossible, and he is the “CEO of Chrysler”.
    Likewise, we have all of these:
    An Act of Congress, a ruling of the Supreme Court, an act of the Executive Branch, the Army of the United States, the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, the Royal Navy of Norway, the splitting of the atom, the Fall of the Roman Empire, the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, the creation of the Universe, the end of time.

    None of these make any sense: Congress’s Act, the atom’s splitting, the Roman Empire’s Fall, the Universe’s creation, time’s end.
    All of these abstract or inanimate entities are incable of possessing anything.

  • Warsaw Will

    @D.A.W. – “of” in this sense is just as much as possessive as genitive “s”. English has two possessive forms. We got one from Anglo-Saxon and the other from French (I think). While it is true that we generally use “of” for inanimate objects and genitive “s” for people, there are plenty of exceptions, and whether we use one or the other depends much more on custom than on logic. For example, we can talk about “a ship’s captain”, but to talk of “an airliner’s pilot” sounds a bit strange. We can talk of “the UK’s record on human rights” and “Britain’s minorities”, but don’t usually say “the UK’s government” or “Britain’s people”. As for “Chrysler’s CEO”, that is absolutely standard English.

    But my main point is about commas. If you go on the principle that a comma represents a pause (and a semicolon represents a longer pause), rather than learning long lists of rules as to when to use commas, I find everything falls into place. When we use appositives in speech, we do in fact pause slightly, whereas in your descriptions, we wouldn’t. Using this principle nearly always coincides with the rules.

    I would suggest that when a writer wants the reader to pause slightly, they should use a comma whether or not the rules countenance it, and if they want the readers to pause longer, go for it, use a semicolon.

  • Steve

    Many of your examples for descriptions run afoul of Bryan Gardner’s proscription against “false titles” – I think that’s what he calls them. He and The New Yorker would instead add “the” to complete the description:

    “The kitchen queen Nigella Lawson…”
    “The conservative radio jock Michael Savage …”

    He contends that “kitchen queen,” unlike “Ambassador,” “Doctor,” or “Lord,” is not a true title.

    I don’t like his rule, and it’s one of the few times I stray from The New Yorker or Mr. Gardner, Esq., as a style guide to emulate.

  • Mark Nichol

    Steve:

    In many matters, I worship at the altar of Garner’s Modern American English Usage, but I agree with you that this proscription is prissy.

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